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The Butterfly Effect

Rev. Nancy S. Taylor
Jan 6 2013


There are two sentences smack in the middle of the story of the Magi upon which the whole world turns.

The first of the two sentences: “Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’

The second sentence immediately follows the first: “When King Herod heard this question, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”

Think of the two sentences as cause and effect. The first sentence is causal. It sets things in motion. The first sentence is a question, but it is a question bearing news. “Eastern visitors ask, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’”

The second sentence is effect upon effect: “When King Herod heard this question, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.”

Questions matter. Think of the wise men’s question in terms of the Butterfly Effect. In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions, where a small change here (or now) can result in a large difference then (or there). The name of the effect is derived from the theoretical example of a hurricane's formation being contingent upon a distant butterfly fanning its wings several weeks before.

Like the fanning of a butterfly’s wings, the wise men’s question introduces a disturbance. It is slight at first, barely ruffling the air: “Where is the child who is born king of the Jews?” It is such a small thing ... a single, simple question posed in thriving metropolis. It is a grain of sand on a beach. It is a drop of water in the ocean. It is no more than the slightest fanning of the weightless wings of a butterfly.

Or is it?

You see, by the time the question wends its way through the narrows streets of Jerusalem, through the gates of the palace and into the to King’s chambers, it is no longer slight. It is by now the stuff of dynamite. When it reaches his chambers, King Herod hears this: “There is a rival king out to depose, dethrone and assassinate you.” In Herod’s chambers the question explodes. It is incendiary. It is treason!

The wise men’s question enters the world of Herod, the land of Judea, and it troubles the calm, stirs the winds and brews a storm.

Let me tell you about King Herod. Nature had endowed Herod with the qualities of ascendency.
He was of commanding presence; he excelled in physical exercises; he was a skilful diplomat;
and, above all, he was prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.

Appointed by Rome to rule on their behalf over the occupied Jewish populace, King Herod was a terrifying and brutish ruler. He had dozens of rabbis and teachers burned alive. He executed members of his own family. Upon assuming his throne, Herod identified the forty-five wealthiest families in his domain and executed them. He then confiscated and plundered their estates for the purpose of filling his treasury. From his treasury he not only supported armies and building projects, he bribed and paid his way into Rome’s graces. (Jewish Encyclopedia)

Herod arrayed himself in purple robes, surrounded himself with armed soldiers and indulged in a decadent, unholy lifestyle. Pious Jews rejected Herod’s Jewishness for he was neither religiously observant nor ethically informed by the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Moses and Miriam, the God of the prophets and patriarchs of Israel.

The truth is that under Herod’s rule all Judea lived in a state of fear and anxiety, insecurity and poverty. And yet, as miserable as it was, Judea under Herod had achieved a sort of equilibrium, a certain status quo. It was the equilibrium of injustice for the many and privilege for the few. But it was in its own dysfunctional way, a functioning system.

The wise men’s question—Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?—introduces a challenge and a disturbance, a perturbation. The question upsets the equilibrium.

Among other consequences, the wise men’s question posits two realms and exposes the difference between Herod’s reign and God’s. It forces choices among the populace: if there are, indeed, two sovereigns, to which sovereign do you owe your allegiance? Which king rules yours life and your heart? Will it be Rome’s brutish king, the one with blood on his hands or, one the other hand will it be the child who comes in peace, who will rule with love, who will surprise you with clemency (when you least deserve it) and whose edicts are parabolic?

Questions matter. Jesus taught with questions. His questions were intended to provoke, to cause perturbation ... a disturbance ... an upsetting of the equilibrium. Here are just a few. Listen.

Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye yet fail to perceive the log in your own eye?

Why do you harbor evil thoughts?

What profit would there be if you were to gain the whole world and forfeit your soul?

Do you not read the scriptures?

Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and still not see? Ears and not hear?

Where is your faith?

Questions matter.

This morning when we baptized Caitlin Ryan Connolly, we did so with questions:

How will Caitlin grow up understanding that she is a child of God, made in God’s image?

How will she learn of the Christian faith?

What will we expect of her?

Do you—Old South Church—pledge to work toward creating and maintaining a challenging and nurturing Christian environment for Caitlin? In other words, will you support the costs of curriculum and teachers, of audio-visual equipment and Christmas pageants, of Bibles and maps of the Holy Land? Will you seek out Caitlin’s teachers to say thank you? Will you—you who are now Christian aunties and uncles to wee Caitlin—will you endeavor to so shape your lives around God, around Christian virtues and values, that Caitlin will one day say to herself: I want to be like that. I want to be like them.

Make no mistake about it these baptismal questions are intended to cause a disturbance in our lives and in the life of the world. They are intended to disrupt and disturb the stale equilibrium of worldliness and introduce into it the fresh and provocative winds of God’s Spirit: the soft breezes of mystery, the bracing gales of holiness.

When such questions intrude upon the equilibrium of our lives, it is our dearest hope that they will trouble the calm, stir the winds and brew and build into a mighty storm of faith. After all, the baptismal questions are, at heart, the very questions upon which God’s world turns.

Every time the church poses such a question, it is as if the weightless, incandescent wings of a butterfly bestir the air. Such a small, thing ... so very slight: no more noticeable, no more intrusive than the gentlest of whispers.

Or, is it?